TAMPA — MAD Theatre makes a habit of taking on quirky musicals that would be beyond the reach of most community theater companies. They're often shows unfamiliar to the masses, with scores that require a lot of great voices.
That makes the successes especially memorable. And when shows miss their mark, the intentions and ambitions make the audience want to embrace the performance.
The latest offering from MAD is called A New Brain, and although it misses its target, it has an undeniable appeal, thanks largely to a noble cast that tries its best to handle the thematically and musically difficult material.
William Finn, who's best known for Falsettoes and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, wrote A New Brain after his experience with serious brain surgery. It's essentially all songs, with almost no dialogue, and relates the story of a work-for-hire songwriter (played by Marcus Blake) facing mortality and yearning to create the art he had always aspired to.
Meanwhile, he's haunted by hallucinations, including the children's TV character (a man dressed as a frog) for whom he writes saccharine songs, and a homeless woman he encounters on the street. Real-life people (including his partner, his mother, his agent) visit him as well.
Because the story is told in song, it's kind of hard to keep it all straight, and sometimes it's unclear who is a specter and who is flesh-and-blood.
A more critical problem, though, is that the songs are unexceptional. There are few lyrical lines that catch your attention, but no melodies remain with you after you leave the theater.
The score is obviously vocally demanding, and the 11-person cast handles it pretty well. LaToya McCormick is a clear standout as the homeless woman; she wields a powerful voice that can hold a note endlessly with no trace of vibrato and has a palpably appealing stage presence.
The other cast members all perform admirably. There are some scattered flat notes, but just as many fine moments when the singers truly nail a song. Bonnie Smith, as the composer's mother, has an especially memorable solo. A five-person band, which plays almost continually for the entire show, does solid work as well.
One reason community theaters often shy away from a musical is the difficulty of finding performers who can sing, act and dance. The performers in the cast of A New Brain seem to be primarily singers, and they're noticeably uncomfortable and self-conscious, even embarrassed, when they're dancing. And most of them seem to lack enough experience to feel comfortable on stage even when they're just singing. Blake, in the lead role, and Ashlyn Gentile as a nurse are exceptions.
Another problem, perhaps more subtle but dramatically more bothersome, is a profound lack of chemistry between Blake and Paul Rubino, who plays his life partner. Their scenes together are noticeably stiff.